Torey Hollingsworth: Investments in ‘legacy cities’ key to recovery – Opinion – The Columbus Dispatch

Ohioans are used to hosting a parade of reporters every four years for the presidential election. But after last year’s election, the visits to Ohio’s smaller legacy cities like Youngstown and Chillicothe didn’t stop. Reporters kept visiting to write about the challenges facing these communities and their peers throughout the Midwest, challenges that were credited with helping to elect the president. While these issues deserve attention, recent dispatches from Ohio’s smaller legacy cities often fail to tell the whole story. 

Ohio’s smaller legacy cities have indeed been battered by declines in manufacturing employment, the consolidation of corporate headquarters, the contraction of the middle class, an aging population and the growing economic and cultural power of America’s coasts. Smaller legacy cities — communities with 30,000 to 200,000 residents and traditional economies built around manufacturing — have been ground zero for these trends. Compounding their stress, they also have had to contend with the widespread challenges of concentrated poverty, neighborhood decline and the lingering impact of residential segregation. 

In “Revitalizing America’s Smaller Legacy Cities,” a new report published by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in partnership with Greater Ohio Policy Center, Alison Goebel and I found that these kinds of communities in Ohio — including Akron, Dayton, Hamilton, Lima, and Youngstown — have seen greater challenges since the year 2000 than their peers in other states. Poverty and shrinking wages stemming from the Great Recession compounded decades of population loss and manufacturing decline, trends that hit Ohio and the Midwest particularly hard. An earlier analysis we did found that Ohio’s smaller communities have also fallen behind Cleveland and Cincinnati — the state’s two larger “legacy” cities. 

However, we have learned that there is more to the story than decline. This summer, Greater Ohio Policy Center staff members traveled to Ohio’s smaller legacy cities to explore each of their unique issues and circumstances. Despite the difficult situation many of them are in, we have consistently found these communities have leaders from the public and private sectors who care deeply about their city’s future. In many places, local leaders are being creative, forging new collaborations and taking risks — strategies our research identified as key in helping smaller legacy cities elsewhere achieve economic stabilization and growth. 

For example, in Hamilton, city leaders are injecting fresh perspectives into local government by empowering recent master’s graduates to manage projects that help city offices be more effective and responsive. In Lima, the private sector has rallied around communitywide efforts to make sure that job-training programs and school curriculum are truly connecting residents with the skills they need to land a job.

These investments might take years to bear fruit. If these communities are to recover, however, long-term intentional leadership cultivation and public/private collaboration are necessary. 

Our research also found that states can play an important role in revitalizing smaller legacy cities by providing local leaders with additional tools to leverage. Michigan rewards local leaders who are working to reshape their communities and local economies with state technical and financial assistance. Massachusetts provides its struggling smaller legacy cities with special help in attracting entrepreneurs and residents.

Ohio, too, should continue to explore new ideas to support our cities as they contend with these issues. It is important for our state’s overall success, since nearly one-third of Ohioans live in smaller legacy cities or their suburbs. Just eight of our smaller cities’ metropolitan areas produce almost 30 percent of the state’s overall economic output. Moreover, these communities provide critical services including health care for the state’s rural populations. 

Ohioans across our state have shown the will and developed the strategies that can lead to success. 

As we head toward the pivotal 2018 state elections, our public conversations must address the needs of these communities thoughtfully and persistently. We must remember that smaller cities remain important economic drivers for Ohio’s overall success, and we all have a stake in ensuring their long-term health. 

Torey Hollingsworth is manager of research and policy at the Greater Ohio Policy Center, a statewide nonpartisan nonprofit organization with a mission to champion revitalization and sustainable growth in Ohio.

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